A Laser's Touch May Help Graft New Skin On Burn Victims

Surgeons traditionally rely on eyesight and a scalpel to treat burn patients. But the human eye has a tough time telling how deep and serious burns are, because visible light can't penetrate the skin. Sandia National Laboratories and Wellman Laboratories of Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston are working on a solution: a high-power laser guided by sensors.

The system will use invisible light to sense when the laser has removed enough tissue for a skin graft to take hold. Wellman has devised a sensor that is being tested for evaluating burn patients. Sandia's task is to make the sensor easy to use and make, and then hook it up to guide the laser. Doctors will inject burned tissue with fluorescent dye. Since the blood vessels are destroyed in dead tissues, the dye will be carried only into sections that remain healthy. Sandia will use computer models to determine the ideal power and spot size of the laser. Sandia's project leader, Ned Godshall, estimates that animal tests using the integrated system will be under way in two years.